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‘Super Freak: The Rick James Story’ at the National makes you feel like a rock star

September 1981. I was a freshman at Northwestern High School. If a radio was on, I heard Rick James’ monster hit “Super Freak.” You couldn’t escape it. Like Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” three years later, the song made an indelible impact.

Rick James’ unconventional life is revealed in Super Freak: The Rick James Story, a musical spectacle that enthralls the audience with exciting performances of his popular hit songs such as “Super Freak,” “Ghetto Life,” “Mary Jane,” “Ebony Eyes,” and “Give It to Me Baby.” This dynamite musical, which is on tour, dives into James’ troubled lifestyle, which included drugs and sex.

Scene from ‘Super Freak: The Rick James Story.’ Photo courtesy of Je’Caryous Entertainment.
Scene from ‘Super Freak: The Rick James Story.’ Photo courtesy of Je’Caryous Entertainment.

The first act of this show is arguably the best I’ve seen in my 55-plus years. You had to be there. Super Freak: The Rick James Story is a jukebox musical with storytelling that stands on its own. You can cut out all the music, and it’s a great play with compelling, true-to-life characters.

It’s got foul language. It’s got drug use. It’s unfiltered and not for the faint of heart.

Throughout the show, James met many heavy-hitters in the music industry, including Marvin Gay; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Stevie Wonder; The Temptations; Diana Ross; Ashford and Simpson, and Prince. While dodging the draft, James formed the rock group the Mynah Birds in Toronto in the ’60s and “put on” many other artists, such as Prince as James’ star rose in the ’80s.

Rick James was a man troubled by personal demons. His drug habit reportedly spiraled to $7,000 a day. James passed away at age 56. It’s notable that his two similar contemporaries, Michael Jackson and Prince, passed away at 50 and 57, respectively. He was combative. He was bitter because it took him so long to hit it big. He was non-monogamous. He would be the first to admit, “I’m not built for stability.”

Scenes from ‘Super Freak: The Rick James Story.’ Photos courtesy of Je’Caryous Entertainment.
Scenes from ‘Super Freak: The Rick James Story.’ Photos courtesy of Je’Caryous Entertainment.

Two phenomenal actors play Rick James and his younger self, James Ambrose Johnson Jr., respectively: Stokley Williams (known as Stokley) from the R&B group Mint Condition and Kobe Brown. These were two of the most powerful performances I’ve seen. Their acting and singing were top-notch. Stokley got to utter the infamous line: “I’m Rick James, bitch!”

Much of the drama of the play centered around the three most important women in James’ life: his wife, his lover, and his mom. His wife, Syville, was played by Shayla Soraya with hot spice. She enticed Rick with the line “Many have entered and few have returned.” Syville bore James two children.

His mom, who was a numbers runner, gave him the money to fly to L.A., after James got out of jail for evading the draft. Theirs was a complicated relationship. I loved the performance put on by Chontelle Moore as Momma Johnson. She by turns scolded her son and gave him tough love.

Eleni Hanson played James’ singer-protégé and lover Teena Marie. Stokley and Hanson’s rendition of “Fire and Desire” was worth the price of admission. Their chemistry was undeniable.

As his career was stalled, James went to Africa to talk metaphorically to his younger self and get inspiration. It was cool to see Stokley and Brown play in a scene together.

Act Two exploded with his 1981 hit “Give It to Me Baby.” From there, Stokley killed with his renditions of late-’70s and early-’80s hits like “You and I,” “Super Freak,” and “Standing on the Top.” He put on a mini-concert.

Writer/Director/Producer Je’Caryous Johnson packed a plethora of talent into this show. Every actor brought their famous alter egos to life in unforgettable scenes. Those scenes fleshed out music history.

Dathan Thigpen played Motown founder Berry Gordy. Gordy hated James when he was cold and loved him when he was hot. His clashes with James over promotion and money were epic.

Jonah Harmon played Prince. He displayed amazing pipes in “I Want to Be Your Lover.” His scene depicting his run-in with James over the originality of his act was priceless.

Serena Artise wonderfully played Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s wife, who had a thing with James. Derrick Gibbs played Gaye. Oh, the drama.

Dwayne Cook Jr. got to sing “All Night Long” as Lionel Richie. He also played Nick Ashford in a contentious scene about producing rights with Stokley.

Jeffrey May Hyche played Stevie Wonder, M.C. Hammer, and Charlie Murphy. Jonah Harmon portrayed Neil Young, who befriended James when he fled to Toronto.

Hunter Torr played hairstylist Jay Sebring, who infamously died in 1969 at the hands of cult leader Charles Manson’s minions. (He survived in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.) James would have perished, but he was sleeping off a headache.

Melissa VanPelt embodied Diana Ross and the Lead Mary Jane Girl. She was infamously insulted in her scene with Stokely. To top it off, Val Young, a real-life member of James’ Mary Jane Girls, was a special guest vocalist. (And James’ real-life daughter and Executive Producer Ty James was in attendance.)

The actors were dressed perfectly for their roles. Costume Designer Annie Le put Stokley in iconic outfits. The background dancers were glossier than Solid Gold. James’ famous ’80s braids were the work of Lead Hair and Make-Up Designer Kayla Cannady Truewell.

Music Director Brian Whitted kept the funk flowing. I felt every funky note they played. Choreographer Jo Faye worked in a few James Brown-like splits for various cast members. Faye even included roller-skating. Fight Director/Intimacy Coordinator Avery Vonn made Stokley and Hanson’s scenes sizzle.

Scenic/Set Designer Jason Ardizonne-West’s projection design created a 3D effect. I loved the psychedelic multimedia display of a certain strong weed in Rick’s ode “Mary Jane.”

You’ll leave this show feeling like a rock star. You could stay up all night talking about the gossip behind the grooves in this musical. This show has not hit Broadway yet, but it should. Funk your way to the box office and see it before it leaves town.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 50 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.

Super Freak: The Rick James Story plays through April 7, 2024, at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington. Tickets ($59–$109) are available online.

Note: This event may not be suitable for children under the age of 12.

Tour Schedule: Find it here.

Super Freak: The Rick James Story
Based on Glow by Rick James and David Ritz and Memoirs of a Super Freak by Rick James
Music by Rick James

CAST
Rick James: Stokley
James: Kobe Brown
Momma Johnson: Chontelle Moore
Rick James Understudy: Shariff Sinclair
James Understudy: Royzell Walker
Eleni Hanson: Teena Marie
Berry Gordy: Dathan Thigpen
Special Guest Vocals: Val Young
Lionel Richie and Nick Ashford: Dwayne Cook Jr.
Jan Gaye: Serena Artise
Neil Young: Jonah Harmon
Stevie Wonder, M.C. Hammer, and Charlie Murphy: Jeffrey May Hyche
Diana Ross, Lead Mary Jane Girl: Melissa VanPelt
Prince: Rhon Saunders
MC Hammer: Jeffrey May Hyche
Syville: Shayla Soraya
Jay Sebring: Hunter Torr
Chorus: Jeffrey May Hyche, Rhon Saunders, Dathan Thigpen, Dwayne Cook Jr., Derrick Gibbs, Liam Driscoll, Jonah Harmon, Zym Edson, Hunter Torr, Tyler Rooney, Serena Artiste, Melissa Vanpelt, Shayla Soraya, Eleni Hanson, Carlie Addyson Shaw, Alexandra Anderson

ARTISTIC AND CREATIVE TEAM
Writer/Director/Producer: Je’Caryous Johnson
Director/Co-Writer: J. Kyle Manzay
Co-Writer: Tory Byer
Music Directing/Orchestrating: Jesse Sanchez
Music Director: Brian Whitted
Choreographer: Jo Faye
Costume Designer: Annie Le
Lead Hair and Make-Up Design: Kayla Cannady Truewell
Fight Director/Intimacy Coordinator: Avery Vonn
Sound Designer/Sound Effects: Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski
Scenic/Set Designer: Jason Ardizonne-West

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